Adapting to New Realities: The Future of Conferences
In-person conferences have long been favored by entrepreneurs as a place to meet and network with like-minded people. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted this traditional format, forcing the closure of physical events and causing organizers to cancel or move them online. Online conferences, however, presented new opportunities, such as the ability to watch archived talks and participate in speed networking sessions. Collision, the popular tech and startup conference, was able to successfully transition to a fully online event in 2021, attracting more than 38,000 attendees. However, while the virtual arena provided many benefits, attendees missed the networking and serendipitous interactions of in-person events.
Hybrid conferences, with both in-person and online options, have emerged as a solution to bridge the gap between the two formats. Collision’s new app, Mingle, allows attendees to engage in speed networking sessions with each other or with speakers such as actor and entrepreneur Seth Rogen and Microsoft President Brad Smith. As conferences return to in-person events, this app will continue to facilitate networking by helping attendees organize meetings and connections prior to the event.
The pandemic fundamentally changed the way events are run, and virtual conferences have worked well in ensuring that education continues, research is shared, and more delegates can attend events than would otherwise be possible. However, the virtual format has been more challenging for sponsors and exhibitors to engage with attendees. Food and Drink Expo and its sister conferences planned to return in June 2021 with measures such as wider aisles and sanitization stations. Still, they had to postpone the shows until 2022 due to Birmingham City Council advising against “minimal travel in and out of Birmingham.” William Reed, the firm responsible for the events, has held over 100 conferences and awards online during the pandemic, with plans to run hybrid events in the future.
The pandemic has taught us that digital innovation can help sectors adapt to changing circumstances. For the conference industry, hybrid conferences offer the best of both worlds: the benefits of in-person events, such as networking and relationship-building, combined with the accessibility of virtual events. While virtual events have the advantage of reaching more people and reducing environmental impact, forming effective relationships online remains difficult. The future of conferences is likely to involve a mix of virtual and in-person events, with apps like Mingle continuing to facilitate networking even at in-person events. The challenge for organizers will be to strike a balance that maximizes the benefits of both formats.